The Backwaters Press is now accepting submissions for this year’s Backwaters Prize in Poetry contest. The winner and honorable mention will receive cash prizes and book publication with the University of Nebraska Press. The judge for the 2021 contest is Huascar Medina, Poet Laureate of Kansas. For more details on how to enter your manuscript, please visit the Backwaters Prize page.
Kim Garcia is the author of Drone (Backwaters Press, 2016), winner of the 2015 Backwaters Prize in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, and Mississippi Review.
To celebrate National Poetry Month, we reached out to several Backwaters Press poets to write about their work. In the essay below, Kim Garcia discusses Deborah A. Miranda’s poem “Torch” and the role of agency as a theme in her own work.
In the early 2010s I was haunted and disturbed by the image and policies surrounding militarized drones, what the Air Force refers to as “remotely piloted aircraft.”
The more I looked at, researched and Googled these weapons, the more complicit I felt with policies that placed unbearable burdens on those making judgement calls as pilots and sensor operators.
I continue to be fascinated/horrified by the systematic violence we as a country are letting loose in the world and inside our country, and heartened by every act of mercy thoughtful people are choosing in the face of organizational and political pressure. The role of consciousness and individual agency to witness, persevere, and create change moves me deeply.
When I read “Torch” by Deborah A. Miranda, I felt deeply and joyfully instructed on agency as gift. I pressed it into the hands of everyone I knew. I’ll quote it in full here:
“The old man cruises our neighborhood
in a 2-tone Chevy built like a fort;
he offers 25 cents to the girls
who’ll come close enough to let him pinch
a cheek—gaze hidden behind dark
glasses, one hand on the wheel,
one eye on the rearview mirror.
Across the street, we dare
each other: you do it; no,
you do it—pulled as much by the glory
of what a whole quarter buys,
by the yearning to be wanted
by someone—we’re just trailer court kids
on a Saturday morning made of asphalt,
shaggy pines and rain. Our mothers
chain smoke Pall Malls inside thin walls,
fathers or stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends
out hunting work or already drinking.
We’ve all spent nights waiting outside The Mecca
in our parents’ old cars, peering over back seats
into dark windows as if wishing
could erase those light-years of distance.
I am a hungry heart on skinny legs,
standing on the edge of a journey—
no maps, no guides, instincts muddled
by neglect or abandonment or mistake;
naked, letting other people dress me
in trust, shame, lust. I want to say
I will learn how to hide my longing—
that invisible sign scrawled on my forehead
like an SOS revealing my location to the enemy—
but the truth is something more like this:
If there is a patron saint of trailer courts,
if Our Lady of the Single-Wide watches over
potholed streets, crew-cut bullies,
stolen bikes and wildflower ditches, if
children learn to brandish scabs and scars
like medals; if a prayer exists to banish predators—
well, no one taught me that magic.
So I step into that road, cross that street,
take that bribe—and keep walking, out
of that trailer park, away from that childhood.
I follow my hunger, my emptiness, the flame
on my forehead not betrayal but reminder:
it’s not wrong to want, to ask—not wrong—
I keep the beacon lit so love might see me.”
How is it that we go from so much dark—the man in the car with his seductive threat, the larger community that has somehow collaborated with his existence and the vulnerability of the girls within it, the risk-leaning impulses of the girls which are finding no place to go for affection—to the flame on the forehead, the imperishable longing for love?
Community, collective error or tolerance for error, systematic complicity with the power-hungry against a vulnerability in our natures that we reject from fear. This is the situation, the set-up, the conditions within which the speaker and her friends find themselves.
Miranda makes no promises about what will happen next. She does not lean into the narrative arc of trauma and survival. It is all present as possibility. Everything is at risk with nothing to be gained for this girl. We have the speaker’s voice to reassure us that she survived, survived somehow with this voice, this consciousness intact, but the narrative is abandoned once the girl decides to walk to the car. Miranda draws our attention to something else, something within the girl, present whatever happens.
To stand with love, the vulnerable, uninstructed longings of love, in the face of every systematic corruption of those states, is to call attention to the agency of young girls to choose to be open to the world and experience it as gift. That the acts of resisting, discarding, regretting and recommitting while growing up and being bruised by the fallen human world, are all actions of strength on behalf of something tender and wise in the soul—the desire to love and be loved. That such a desire, a flame on the forehead, can power a life towards a world worth having.